Visual Art

Isaac Layman Still Refuses to Leave the House

And His Art Has Gotten Sadder, Lonelier, and Even Better in There

Isaac Layman Still Refuses to Leave the House


NO LABELS, NO FRAMES What do these photographs have to do with sickness?

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Courtesy Of The Frye Art Museum
Isaac Layman, 'Land Grab,' 2011.
+ Enlarge this Image
Courtesy Of The Frye Art Museum
Isaac Layman, 'Untitled,' 2011.

"The guy who made these was alone, in his house, 3 am, everybody else asleep," Isaac Layman says, standing in a gallery of his images at the Frye Art Museum. On the wall behind him, there's a giant close-up of a piece of adhesive tread that tore loose from a stair and caused him to slip one night. He righted himself, picked up the tread, and started photographing. Among the universe of photographable subjects, from sunsets to family, a stair tread falls in the most-boring category. He took its picture dozens of times, imported the pictures onto the computer, and pieced them together to create a composite that's an ultra-detailed portrait of every diamond of machined warp-weft in a small section of the rubbery material, printed the size of a grand landscape painting.

This is one possible response to the experience of being tripped on the stairs—turning an unplanned and unimportant unpleasantness into the vehicle for a majestic object of fine art, a monument that has traveled the greatest possible distance from the dumbest, dimmest beginnings to absurd blowout. It's a monument to the desire for a monument—ultimately a sad and alienated thing. "This work is a refusal to be disappointed," Layman says. But you have to see disappointment coming to refuse it. What was it you wanted that you didn't get? What was it you thought you were promised? Layman is a successful artist getting his first museum solo show, and it's a big production, with all new work and a hardcover catalog. Most artists never get this much support and attention, and at the press preview, he told the crowd sheepishly, "I guess it's glaringly obvious that I'm extremely fortunate."

He calls the show Paradise. It includes two dozen new works—one strains not to use the word "photographs," because while they look like photographs (and it wouldn't exactly be wrong to call them that), they are rather photographic constructions (like flat sculptures or collages with hundreds of hidden seams) outputted as inkjet prints on paper. All of them were made inside his house. There is also an installation of a series of windows removed directly from his house, framed, and hung on the gallery walls at the same relation to each other as they appear in their original location: his family's living room. A modernist point is made: Look at the surface, not through it. Yet you think of the family huddling this winter, the wind blowing in the holes where the windows were, everyone suffering for this non-art art. The windows are still dirty, streaked with children's fingerprints and bird shit.

For a handful of years already, Layman has explicitly stayed in the house rather than going out anywhere to hunt for inspiration. Having once referred to himself as an anti–National Geographic photographer, he implicitly rejects the colonialist implications of certain types of picture taking, and colonialism, in its broadest definition, is Paradise's backdrop. Layman says the alternative title of Paradise is Land Grab—they're two ends on a spectrum of human thinking.

Land Grab is the name of the only titled work in the show (the rest are not only untitled but unmarked by labels). It is a simple line drawing of a rectangle, done in black Sharpie, that forms a frame around nothing on a piece of white paper. Layman photographed the drawing multiple times, blew it up, framed it for the wall. It's a hungry spot in the middle of the exhibition, and it was given a title because its title is about titling: Land Grab refers to the act of naming and framing. "I'm terrified of frames," Layman says. He tells the story of the birth of one of his kids. He held it just after it was born. The moment he remembered he didn't know its sex yet, he suddenly needed to know, and he felt a frame descend on what until that point had been unbounded. He calls this moment the "land grab," for better and for worse. Another centerpiece of Paradise is a large image that looks, from afar, like folds of white fabric (or a nuzzling into the downy feathers of the Frye's most beloved object, Alexander Max Koester's 1900 oil painting of soft, fluffy, molting white ducks). Layman's source material is actually a disgusting pile of snotty tissues laid in water, the products of a round of sickness that hit the whole house. It's a hard image to get close to, makes you aware of a desire to remain separate from it, makes you grateful for the frame, while you still want to keep looking. It feels like an exercise in understanding the distance between looking and touching.

In a written statement at the beginning of the exhibition, Layman is quoted as saying, "I am not lacking, and my surroundings are not lacking." During the press preview, explaining why there are no labels, he also said, "The viewer is not lacking anything." These sound like mantras for convincing oneself, like "I refuse to be disappointed." But pointing to the lack of lack is a way of opposing romantic ideas, and not just about art. It suggests a model in which there is already enough, and that model might go far in thinking beyond the paranoid illusion of scarcity in a world of plenty—the kind of thinking that fuels forces like supercapitalism, the Tea Party, and histories of all-too-real land grabbing on this very land where Layman hunkers down to study the urge to grab, or, if you can't, to escape.

The final image in the show is like a great coffin for paranoia. Its edges glow red: It is a red tool case, opened and photographed from above so you look down on the gray foam molding where the missing tool would go. The molding is photographed so closely, it's like a sky full of stars. The case is made for a caliper, a device that can be used to measure distance without actually traversing it, by grabbing the opposite sides of an object. (Among other uses, a caliper is used to measure fat on bodies.) This device, writ so large, strikes fear because it reflects back an awful perfectionism—the molded shape is so perfect that it's horrible. If we are so good at measuring, why are our resources so misdivided? The two halves of the case are printed separately, each framed. You want nothing more than to slam them shut. recommended

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Comments (21) RSS

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The mundane, dull point of view of this artist, coupled with his rather uninteresting point of view as well as his indulgent quotes, unfortunately does nothing short of confound the viewer and leave them amazed that this particular artist has been given a museum show. This work is neither very interesting, nor complex, and is greatly lacking in content, showing up as really just "sexy decorator art for your cool,modern house" (all in the guise of seriously good art worthy of long thought and consideration, of course). I realize that Robin Held is by far not the brightest star in the curatorial galaxy (as nice as she may be, sorry Robin) but this exhibition seems VERY premature and sadly tied to far too many obviously nepotic "associations" to justify it's existence at this time, if at all. This show is, in a word, flat. I also do not understand the laborious and contrived approach to the writing about this artists work, it seems to be trying so darned hard, but why? It's really a magician's trick of sorts where the writing is flows well enough to entertain you without really amounting to much of anything, much like this artist and his show.
Posted by 0wl4art on November 23, 2011 at 2:09 PM · Report this
@1. For an owl, you seem to lack eyes (and a heart).
Posted by hoot on November 23, 2011 at 2:51 PM · Report this
@1. You also lack even the basic knowledge of who curated this show.
Posted by Jen Graves on November 23, 2011 at 4:45 PM · Report this

Owl4art, hibrowgorilla, northwest mystic, We know who you are. You have electronic signatures. Your hallmark style stands out like a sore thumb. You always have the same infantile slant. If only you could change your tune and give us real food for thought. I'm thinking it's your writing that needs to improve, but it seems hopeless. Your one note approach is tiring.
Posted by GFinholt on November 23, 2011 at 7:13 PM · Report this
alpha unicorn 5
"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" ~ Johnny Rotten
Posted by alpha unicorn on November 23, 2011 at 7:26 PM · Report this
@G F••khole...not this time loser- but i cant say i disagree with@1. Infantile? Hallmark? Food for thought? Where's your brilliant defense??? NOT! The pathetic part of this is your inability to shine and lack of intellectual clarity in your self-minded championing of yourself and your childish vigilantism. F' OFF and let this be the OPEN editorial comment forum for ALL opinions and stop with your junior high school awkward put downs and call outs. If you dont like someones opinion-FINE-but this IS America and the Stranger-HELLO LOSER. You're just SOOO annoying! Seriously...Pull your head out of Jen and Co's azz cuz it dont make ANYBODY really like you more tha they already don't-btw.
Posted by northwest mystic on November 23, 2011 at 9:05 PM · Report this


Posted by 4 the zombie chihuahuas spewing goo on November 24, 2011 at 5:00 PM · Report this
What about his brain. You think it's there?
Posted by GFinholt on November 25, 2011 at 5:16 PM · Report this
@1 & @6

Dear multiple personality with ADD (hibrowgorilla, sucka69, owl4art, northwest mystic) your brainstorms are kind of funny and I fear they are from an adult. There are a number of things that are your hallmark including nastiness towards the Stranger, Jen Graves and that you seem to go ballistic with nastiness at Photography as serious art. You seem to have a very old-fashioned take on what can be included in your notion of the world of fine art. Sometimes you mock what you take Jen’s style to be by writing as if you were her.
Among the IT tools available to identify people and mine data is intelligent software that can compare blog comments and show the ones that are related to each other by style. You have a very identifiable style. If you want to show that what I've said is not true you are free to come out of the closet. I don't have the goal or fantasy that I need to be liked by people to post my thoughts. Even by those you mention. I rather expect the opposite. That is easily that case for expressing oneself. I would probably be better for me socially if I kept my mouth shut—so to speak. I’m clearly not preventing you from expressing yourself, just criticizing you.
Posted by GFinholt on November 25, 2011 at 5:44 PM · Report this
What I TRULY gives thanks to this week is for the enormous effect and influence my comments and writings have had on you F'hole and obviously ALL the others who "wont talk to the troll" but can't seem to ignore makes me warm with holiday cheer to realize how obsessed you and all the others are with "us"( as you say so technologically informed). I want to be clear I love The Stranger and think it rocks. I do not have anything against Jen personally as I'm sure she's quite nice. But she is beneath her position and does not do it the justice it deserves(as most say publicly behind her back). I WISH she was a good critic, as good a writer as Savage or Lindy, but she is not-period. She is nepotic, unseasoned, unfair, bitchy, and forced. I know you like my commentary-and for all your silly amateur criticisms-you know I'm making sense. Art is a big arena and there's more shit than shine-A LOT MORE-so let it roll, dude.
Posted by northwest mystic on November 26, 2011 at 10:03 AM · Report this
Interesting, but still the one note slam on the writer who you think has to meet some ridiculous arbitrary standard. When it comes to your posts there seems to be a collaborative fiction going on (either in your head or from an outside team). I don't think of some of y’all as a trolls but as insistent pests with terrible manners. I probably would find interest in many of your ideas but they don't appear here. I generally don't appreciate your commentary. If you support art and the art community one would think you would help the experience of the artists being reviewed and not sully their opportunity to enjoy their moment in the sun. It's just too bad. Your “northwest mystic” delusion make you come off as so pompous and dinosauric about art.
Posted by GFinholt on November 26, 2011 at 4:31 PM · Report this

I think Jen is extremely intelligent and has an astute sense of observation without spoon-feeding you the answers. I greatly appreciate it. I remember a few years back Gretchen Bennett commenting on a particularly unsavory article: she said that "we should be building each other up instead of breaking each other down" I think that we can build each other up, with good manners, be it positive or negative criticism-- as long as it's constructive. Talking directly to you, NW Mystic, it's embarrassing to keep stumbling over your silly megalomaniac ranting. I challenge all the decent regular regulars in here to start ignoring your goofball antics and start WRITING COMMENTS ABOUT THE ART (myself included, I haven't seen the show yet)
Posted by Shakesbeer on November 26, 2011 at 11:45 PM · Report this
alpha unicorn 13
“I have opinions of my own - strong opinions - but I don't always agree with them.”~ George Bush
Posted by alpha unicorn on November 27, 2011 at 8:15 AM · Report this
you got me. that was a good one professor wisenhiemer.
Posted by shakesbeer on November 27, 2011 at 12:49 PM · Report this
Vade Mecum 15

This isn't about opinions or points of view. Baiting people with prolific amounts of negativity in the message boards is simply a way for you to find stimulation. It's sick and it causes real harm. I truly believe that you have some mental issues and need some help.
Posted by Vade Mecum on November 27, 2011 at 1:22 PM · Report this
northwest mystic: "Art is a big arena and there's more shit than shine-A LOT MORE"
Showing your hand and world-view? I know the art world has an amount of discord between some artists and critics and gallerists, etc. Warhol was not warmly embraced by Jasper Johns and Lichtenstein. I and others have some problems with Chihuly. Still the huge community of art tends to be extremely open to and supportive of the many within, to openly accept the good of everybody’s creativity and whatever art they make. This is a hallmark of the Arts community and it is not their take that most of it is more shit than shine. Art schools are noted for the freedom of expression they carefully guard and promote. Individualism is rather sacred in the arts and one tends to go easy on criticism. We stand out of the way of the natural impulses any child learning art brings to their work. We all know this. So what's with you?
Posted by GFinholt on November 28, 2011 at 5:30 PM · Report this
The younger folk probably don't realize what the art world was like a few decades back. I think one of the amazing things about the Layman photo prints on show at the Frye is that they probably wouldn't have been considered appropriate for the museum for most of its life. As I recall the original Frye, it was mostly into exhibiting painting or sculpture exclusively as the premiere media of fine art and photos were not to be included--mostly romantic winning watercolors from various shows were featured. In the early 60's the UW art school wouldn't consider photography as a serious media that an art student could graduate in. Strangely, SAM also seemed to be prejudiced about including photography as fine art for much of its life. SAM did not seem to take photography as serious art till the 70's. It was only then that they created their first Photography Art Council that disappeared some years later to the consternation of many of its photography loving members. The Photography Art Council was moved into the Contemporary Art Council. The politics was not pretty.

The curator of this show is clearly an extremely qualified professional to evaluate the importance of giving Isaac Layman his own show. She has international scope in experience in these matters. Isaac is a curious study in the challenges of doing photography as serious contemporary art containing a lot of conceptualism and now a lot of minimalism. The world of photography is not all art from the point of view of contemporary art. The local nature photographer Art Wolfe and Erwin Wurm using photographs are engaged in different professions. Artists with cameras is kind of different than a photographer. Aperture magazine has historically seriously stumbled on this distinction as has Photo Center NW. Layman has been heard to say he did ordinary photography at one time in his life and tired of it. It is not easy to conceive what he is trying to do. Contemporary art can challenge not only the artist but just about anyone. Layman seems to have a special ability at this. Layman uses a 4x5 view camera with a back that records the image often extremely slowly as it scans the image. The idea of using multiple images to counter the problem of depth of field is not new but is used to raise special questions by Layman. It is rewarding to see Layman get this boost to his career and the support he's received from Scott Lawrimore and other leaders in the art world. It should be interesting to follow the growth and direction of this gifted young UW artist. He has a very interesting mind when it comes to photography. A look at some of his early work he did in Italy and just after is very revealing.…

Posted by GFinholt on November 28, 2011 at 7:17 PM · Report this
Vade Mecum 18
I went to Layman's show and I'm interested to read more opinions about it. I had a hard time with an entire wall of dirty windowpanes and the deadpan textures all framed up. I liked the cul-de-sacs of ice cube trays(?) breaking down the empty space. With the clinical presentation of ickiness and tenacious framing, intimacy is broken down to the point of austerity. Also, It was a strange and disorienting experience going from Layman's meditative environment to the main gallery packed full of figurative paintings-- that seemed to be a large part of the concept. I saw his work at Soil and at Elizabeth Leach and liked those works more than the current show. But "Paradise" grows on me the more I think about it.

You know what we need to cleanse the palate of all that negativity and shit? Get on over to Hennessy Youngman's youtube channel and check them shitz out, yo. It's all you ever need to hear about the sublime.
Posted by Vade Mecum on November 29, 2011 at 12:51 AM · Report this
flipper 19
You walk into a gallery full of textures and empty places. You reach a picture of a cloud-heaven made of used tissues, placed front and center in the room like a pulpit. It is parenthood. It IS a parent: Perhaps something was handed down by a 1000ft. tall Charleton Heston. Whatever it was, it exploded and cooked up more cataclysms, mere sneezes on the scale of time. On the side wall there is a picture of a metal brad revolving around a larger metal orb. A hydrogen atom. A tiny eye looking up at something that is indifferent to it. And you! You lucky person! Through all the vast ejaculations and membranes, you get to jump out of it, and as part of it, you look at yourself. You see mysterious shapes and you fill them with your imagination and comprehension. Fill it in with more things. In a perfect little place, in time and space, life is a short pause. It's sweet too, if you're lucky and you know what's good for you,.
Posted by flipper on November 30, 2011 at 1:16 AM · Report this
"women like you they're a dime a dozen, you can buy 'em anywhere"

This brings to mind-F'hole-the basic world wide existance of the exaltation of the common man perspective/opinion as gospel. Worthy and wonderful. Deserving, valid, relevant , and contemporary, so right now (not 'dinosauric'- praise God for that!) Well-I can only offer you this insightfully defining quote G-man-woman

,"I don't know much but I know what I like"
...says it all.
Posted by northwest mystic on November 30, 2011 at 8:02 AM · Report this
flipper 21
Oh yeah?

Well my cat can eat a whole watermelon!

Posted by flipper on November 30, 2011 at 1:35 PM · Report this

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